Humbled in the Gila

By Devon Naples, NM Wild’s Executive Assistant

As anyone who loves Wilderness knows, planning and research can get you pretty close to your perfect camping trip. Experience and the right gear go a long way too. But as we also well know, nature has a chaotic bend and unexpected challenges of any magnitude could arise on any camping trip. Staying safe is crucial, but once that criterion is met, we can find lessons and gratitude in derailment and disappointment.

New Mexico Wild has a special time off policy that encourages full-time staff members to spend a week outdoors each year. It’s called our Wilderness Week. In addition to our allotted time off, we get to choose five consecutive weekdays each year to spend exploring the beauty of nature that we work every day to protect. We see this as a perk not just for individual staff members, but for the organization as a whole; if staff members are inspired and enlivened by the awesomeness of nature, they will bring that energy back to the work they do for New Mexico Wild. 

In anticipation of my first Wilderness Week this Fall, I carefully evaluated my countless destination options. I just moved to New Mexico last year, and the impatience I feel to see every gorgeous inch of this state is sometimes overwhelming. I consulted my New Mexico bucket list and after some narrowing down, one destination stood out. The Gila region has such allure for reasons aesthetic, wild, and historical. Iconic in the conservation world for being the world’s first Wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness embodies the wild beauty of our state. Smart to use this giant nine-day window to see something big, majestic, and far away! I set my sights on the Gila region.

I did my research, including but not limited to grilling my colleagues who know the area best. How to best approach this vast region with copious opportunities for exploration? Where to camp? How high is the river? Which trails will be passable with my little canine hiking buddies? Which campsites have access to the most appealing trails? There were spreadsheets and browser windows with dozens of tabs open. There were a couple of pivots and plan changes. By a month out, my husband and I had a solid plan laid out for our week in the Gila: 3 nights at Snow Lake, then 3 along the Middle Fork.

And boy did we feel ready. The Rav-4 was packed to the ceiling with gear and coolers. We got on the road early and made our way across the state in no hurry. We stopped at the butcher in Datil for a steak to grill. As we got closer to our campsite at Snow Lake, we agreed we were ready to be out of the car.

Approaching a fork in the road, we determined the road straight ahead and the road intersecting on our left would both lead us to our campsite at Snow Lake eventually. We took a fated left turn. The dry road grew muddier. We easily powered through the first few sticky spots, ignorant of the precariousness of our situation. Casually approaching a particularly muddy stretch, the idea to turn back and use the other road wasn’t even on our minds. Suddenly, a slide. A noticeable absence of forward motion. A swear word. We were stuck.

I won’t say which of us was driving but it wasn’t either of the dogs. We got out of the car to evaluate the situation. Almost immediately, we heard the unmistakable sound of a wolf howling- or was it two? In no mood to fully enjoy the majestic howls, I made a mental note to reflect back on what I’d heard later, when I was in a more positive state of mind.

Mostly off the road at this point, the 4-wheel drive Rav-4 was in deep. The mud was thick and wet and unyielding. Piling bark and sticks and pine needles under the wheels for traction proved futile. We had a shovel, but the mud was too viscous; once one wheel was dug out, the last was already encased again. Several more attempts to free the car only deepened our lowgrade panic, and the car’s entrenchment. The sun was setting, and the car was stuck 7 miles from our campsite and 223 miles from home.

With darkness and coldness threatening to complicate things further, we set up camp off the road. My dogs ate their dinner and then mine following a bold canine steak heist. We made a plan to hike back to the main road in the morning to wave down a passerby. With no cell service, we had to get old school with our rescue strategy.

At 5AM, we were awoken by a forest service truck teetering down the road. I unzipped the tent to find the ranger shining his spotlight on our tent and our obviously immobile car. I waved and frantically tried to get my boots on to go meet him by the road, but he was already on the move. Still, some hope. Surely our plight was clear to this ranger. Surely he or a colleague would be back in the morning to pull us out of the muddy abyss.

I got up early the next morning and hiked a few miles to the road. Hours passed pleasantly as I read the beloved tree-centric novel, The Overstory. Finally, a sedan became audible and then visible down the road. I waved them down. A reluctant young couple listened reticently to my story. They were on their way out of the forest, and couldn’t help us with a tow with their considerably smaller car. But they promised to call the forest service once they got back into cell range.

I waited another hour in case a bigger vehicle came along. When my self-imposed deadline came and went, I headed back to camp to try and make the most of the remaining afternoon hours. The dogs joined me for a hike back down the road. And we had hope that the forest service would be through to save us any minute. 

Then it was nighttime. My husband optimistically observed that at least we were in the Gila National Forest. I was feeling more like those mud farmers in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than like the zen camper I was used to becoming on camping trips. I was ready for some beautiful views and the trails I had researched and downloaded maps for on my phone. But that night, we heard the wolves again and I was grateful for that.

In the morning, I was preparing to head back to the road when we noticed a distinct change in my dog’s demeanor. The kind you’d expect after replacing her water with reposado tequila. She was… drunk? Dehydrated? Wobbly and disoriented, unable to sit up straight or keep her eyes open, my dog was clearly suffering from some kind of neurological disturbance. Panic. Did she eat something weird? Has she had enough water? WHAT are we going to do if she gets worse? We are stranded.

I gathered myself and headed back to the road determined to find help. More reading, less focused this time. And within an hour, a car. No, a truck. A really, really big truck. Some hunters from Silver City who were ready to help. When our efforts to pull the car out of the mud started looking perilous to our bumper, shovels were gathered and reinforcements arrived. Four guys digging for almost two hours finally freed the car from the road’s muddy grasp. They saved us. (Thank you Claudia and Marty!!!) We thanked them profusely, packed up the car, and when we got to the main road, instead of a left up to Snow Lake as we’d hoped, we took a right toward Silver City, and a veterinarian’s office.

The vet’s best guess was altitude sickness. Later research on the elevation in the Snow Lake area cast doubt on that diagnosis. But in the moment, getting lower for the rest of our camping trip seemed wise. And predictable, easy terrain seemed best for our Lucy. Her sobriety was restored by nighttime.

We spent the rest of my Wilderness Week on the east end of the Gila National Forest in a beautiful area we’d been to before. We grabbed a designated camping spot and enjoyed some leisurely hikes along Mineral Creek near Hillsboro. We taught the dogs to swim in a spring pool and didn’t see another soul for three days. 

It wasn’t what we planned, and we never set foot in the Gila Wilderness. We got home muddy and exhausted. The experience was humbling. Even veteran campers like us can make a silly mistake so deleterious that it derails the whole trip. But my dog is safe. And we made some beautiful memories on that trip, moments when all of the stress and regret disintegrated, and I was able to be totally present with my little family in the Gila National Forest.

Click here to learn more about why the Gila River is one of our protection priorities and deserves Wild & Scenic protection!

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Dorothy Beatty

Enjoyed your writing – Your words left me feeling and smelling the beauty and frustration of your adventure. Thankfully your dog and the RAV-4 survived and you are not longer “one with the mud”. And thanks for all that you and New Mexico Wild do us.

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